7 miners die of suffocation in Surigao tunnel (Philippines)

MAT-I, SURIGAO CITY (MindaNews/10 May) – Seven miners died of “suffocation due to oxygen deprivation” this morning in a tunnel in this village known for its small-scale mining sites, but rescuers were able to save a 19-year-old miner.

Noli N. Arreza, mining engineer at the Mines and Geosciences Bureau (MGB) and chair of the Provincial Mining Regulatory Board (PMRB), said the miners may have died of suffocation while inside the tunnel that is said to be almost 26 meters deep.

The dead were identified as Baste Avila, 24, from San Agustin, Surigao del Sur; brothers Delvin and Dexter Antipaz, from Malimono, Surigao del Norte; Jomar Estrella, 26; Faustino Pacquiao, Julius Mayola and Arnel Palasan. The survivor was identified as Berdan Avila, younger brother of Baste, who went to the tunnel on his own in search of his brother.

Junribel M. Bustillo, spokesperson of the Nagkahiusang Gagmay’ng Minero (NAGAMI, or united small-scale miners), said their initial investigation showed the miners, all NAGAMI members, went inside the tunnel about 7:30 a.m. to retrieve a hose and a submersible pump that will be used in a separate tunnel.

They were not, however, able to use a blower machine as oxygen support, causing their deaths, he stressed. There had been reportedly no operations in the tunnel for over a month and thus there was no blower installed. There was no notice, too, that it has been not operational for a long time.

Bustillo said the incident is big lesson for the group to strictly follow regulations with regards to operating the mining tunnels.

Ernesto Villa-Abrille, who was among the first to enter the tunnel to rescue the victims, said the miners entered the tunnel without informing its owner, and thus nobody knew there were people inside.

NAGAMI officials estimated that the miners lost oxygen support about 17 meters into the tunnel, where the bodies in various positions were found.

NAGAMI members said that normally, the “abanteros” (mine workers who do the work inside the tunnels, as against the “atraseros” who bring the ores out) experience being out of breath at a distance of 15 arms length (or “dupa” in the vernacular) from the mouth of the tunnel.

The bodies were retrieved past 9 a.m., Villa-Abrille said.

Ralph Rowan, head of the city government’s Quick Action Response Team, said they helped retrieved all seven victims and immediately brought them to the Caraga Regional Hospital. But physicians declared that the miners were already dead upon arrival at the hospital.

NAGAMI president Ignacio Arevalo said they will be extending aid to the victims.

Based on interviews with Bustillo and several of those who were able to get into the site related that it was possible the men met some foul smell due to the long period that the tunnel was not in use.

When asked if the deaths could have been due to methane gas poisoning, Arreza said only an investigation can ascertain if methane gas is present in the tunnel. He maintained that as far as initial investigation is concerned, the cause of the miners’ deaths is “suffocation due to oxygen deprivation.”

Emedio Salado, a member of the board of NAGAMI, said that a similar incident occurred in 1983 where abanteros entered a tunnel without oxygen support. But none of them died as they were immediately rescued.

As per standard operating procedure of NAGAMI, miners are not allowed to enter a tunnel that has not been operational since everyone knows that it does not have a machine to provide support for oxygen.

Bernardino Avila, father of Baste and Berdan (the survivor who is now admitted at the Caraga Regional Hospital), told this reporter that he tried to stop his sons from going to Tunnel No. 12 because he already knew operation there had stopped. But his sons prevailed.

He narrated that his sons had not even had breakfast yet. “Baste’s rice on the table, up to now has not been even touched yet,” Bernardino said.

Arreza ordered NAGAMI officials this afternoon to put a “no entry, temporarily closed” notice at Tunnel  No. 12.

The Surigao Metropolitan Water District has said that the operations of small scale miners in Mat-i are still illegal because these are not covered by permits.

A dozen of the mining tunnels have reportedly encroached the buffer zone of the Surigao watershed.

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